Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

March 9, 2012


Ninety-one years of age, sixty-six of them as a priest in New York City, provide the top of a mountain of sorts to look back over the journey, its hardships with the terrain, the relationships made along the way, and experiences that suggest a mountain ascent as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

 My brother, Jeb, died last November after many years of suffering from Parkinson’s. Never losing his sense of humor or his sense of faith, he explained his evening prayer: “Dear God! My name is Jeb; not Job!” About 5 AM on a summer morning in 1944, our small family group gathered at the Larchmont train station, helped Jeb board the train, and quietly watched the train shrink in size as it disappeared down the tracks. Jeb was on his way to war, the USAF. After the war, a distinguished career in State of Maine and US government. May he rest in peace! When I see a news article or book review that would arouse his interest as it did mine, I reached for the phone to call him to exchange comments. He isn’t there!

Some memorable scenes from sixty-six years of life of a New York priest:

St. Jerome’s, South Bronx, 1944; A police car came to the rectory for a priest (a custom in the 1940s); I climbed the ladder up the railroad bridge with the cops, walked out between the rails over the Harlem River; there he was, face down, a little boy about ten, next to the third rail! Dripping wet! Motionless. Second Avenue trains eased slowly by on each side at a mournful pace,  passengers at the windows looking down at a little boy, who just went for a swim and the adventure of crossing a railroad bridge.                                                     

St.. Thomas More’s,
East 89th Street, Manhattan
, winter 1956, a bitter night. I was jarred from sleep about 1 AM by the sound of sirens and crashing glass. Fire engines had been pulled up to the building next to the church. It was thoroughly in the dark, the only light coming from the torches of the firemen and the last flicker of flames as a Niagara of water thundered into the last of the fire. “This way, Father,” a fireman said, as he escorted me over the icy steps. “The third floor.” There was not much left to anoint with the blessed oils. As I knelt down, the three firemen dropped to their knees, crossed themselves, and, almost ceremonially, removed their helmets in reverent salute to the sacraments of Jesus at the passing of a life!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
East 22nd Street, Manhattan
, 1954: The receptionist caught me after my Sunday Mass. “There was a phone call asking that a priest be sent over. A young man was dying.” She gave me the address. “Second floor.” Young man. Probably AIDS, I thought. At the apartment, I could see beyond the open door some twenty to twenty-five individuals, some children, mostly young adults rather fashionably dressed, and some senior citizens. Soft rock was playing in the background, so appropriately. A young man asked if he could help me. I said that someone here had phoned the rectory, asking that a priest be sent. “I can’t imagine who that might be,” he replied, looking into the room. “I was the one who telephoned for the priest.” It was a neighbor across the hall. I was ushered to the bedside of the dying man - his arm around his partner - and introduced myself as the local parish priest, bringing the sacraments for the sick. “Would you care to receive the sacraments ?” His mother, sitting behind him, said, “Say yes, David”.   

What to do now? Confession; Sacrament of Penance? Do you put a couple of dozen people out of the room? There is a little community here, friends – gay and straight – neighbors, the sick man, his partner. Let’s deal with the community. I explained group absolution. “I feel that each of us has at some time disobeyed God’s plan. Have we not?” Remarkably, there was a sense of all nodding their heads in agreement. “And we are profoundly sorry, are we not, for any way we have offended our neighbor in truth, justice, and compassion?” Again, a consensus of agreement. The soft rock, so appropriate, was still playing in the background. And then, “… Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

             I reached for the pix and the Blessed Sacrament. The dying man could not receive a whole host. I broke off a small piece and moved to place it in his mouth. I dropped the particle of the host. It fell into the rumpled sheets. The sick man’s partner reached for the host particle and looked up, “Father, may I give him Holy Communion?” I nodded. I had given David the last rites. His partner had given him his last Holy Communion!

            In blogs to come, I shall try to share some other views seen from the mountain tops.


Blogger Ms. said...

Dear Msgr Byrne

/when You were seeing your brother off to war, I was an 8 year old also living in Larchmont. When you were at Epiphany I was living in an apartment bordering the playground, and later the gardener, Emily Leonard's, new helper. I, a fallen away Catholic still remember your presence there with warmth and comfort. Much has changed, but I still live in that building, still try to maintain that garden on my own (but know it will never be as beautiful as it was in the decade + under Emily'[s hands. Gene Riley gave me your blog site and I became a follower. I just want you to know that your view from the mountain is inspiring and comforting to me

Michelle Slater

March 9, 2012 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

So glad to see that you are back on board with your blog. Always enjoy reading them, as they are very interesting and even inspiring. May God continue to give you the strength to continue your mission..Joey

March 10, 2012 at 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful to see you back. Had me worried. God bless and good luck.

John Mercier

March 11, 2012 at 9:42 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Hello Msgr Byrne. I doubt that you remember me, but I was a member at the Epiphany Church back in the '80's and '90's. My son (Jared) attended the school from pre-K until grade 4 until we left NYC. We were at your 50th anniversary and I fondly remember so many years of your great sermons!!!! I see from your blogs that you are still very active in preaching the Reformation that needs to happen in The RC church. I remember your ecumenical outreach on issues and your creation of the phrase "civil discourse". Hope all is well with you. I can't believe you are 91 years young. Well, I also can't believe that I am now 63 years young ...LOL!!! May you continue for another 20 years. Love...Barbara

March 18, 2012 at 11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am glad to see you back. I'm sorry for the loss of your beloved brother.
What a wonderful pastoral sense you have, from a cannonist yet.
In your day cannon lawyers had some of the best pastoral sense.
God bless you!

April 11, 2012 at 11:23 PM  

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